Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand

 
Pork barrel politics the new normal

Pork barrel politics the new normal

Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand

 November 2020    RTF News

New Zealand Truck & Driver readers may recall the furore around the approval of nearly $12million of Government money to a ‘green’ school in Taranaki that threatened to envelop the Green Party’s election campaign. 

As shabby and embarrassing as that was for the Greens and in particular co-leader James Shaw (whose stated policy had been to remove state funding from private schools), it was actually the insight it gave us into how public money is currently being allocated that should be of far greater concern to taxpayers.

The $12m green school grant is just one small scheme to acquire Government money as part of the $3bn ‘shovel-ready’ projects fund, set up in the wake of the initial COVID-19 lockdown. 

What I find so worrying is that if it wasn’t for the political theatre that went with the green school grant, there would have been little to no attention given to this funding at all. 

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New Zealand Truck & Driver readers may recall the furore around the approval of nearly $12million of Government money to a ‘green’ school in Taranaki that threatened to envelop the Green Party’s election campaign. 
As shabby and embarrassing as that was for the Greens and in particular co-leader James Shaw (whose stated policy had been to remove state funding from private schools), it was actually the insight it gave us into how public money is currently being allocated that should be of far greater concern to taxpayers.
The $12m green school grant is just one small scheme to acquire Government money as part of the $3bn ‘shovel-ready’ projects fund, set up in the wake of the initial COVID-19 lockdown. 
What I find so worrying is that if it wasn’t for the political theatre that went with the green school grant, there would have been little to no attention given to this funding at all. 
The reality is that the green school is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Billions of dollars of government spending have gone to a list of projects that have undergone no greater scrutiny than being championed by Government ministers, and that should make us all very nervous.
I’m naturally sceptical of the value of stimulus programmes at the best of times. In the short-term they can result in a quick fizz to the economy, by putting money into people’s pockets….but the longer-term impact can be extremely distortionary. 
As well as artificially propping up businesses within industries that are unsustainable without Government support, it disproportionately advantages the already well-off who are in a position to take advantage of free capital. Poorer NZers, who are the ones that will suffer most from an economic downturn, are just left with the negative consequences on their pay packets of increased Government debt and quantitative easing.
The green school saga has also highlighted the fact that public money is being spent on the pet projects of ministers and political parties. This used to be called ‘pork-barrel politics’ and was something that was quite a serious accusation against any Government minister or MP.
What has also been revealed is the kind of horse-trading that has been going on behind the scenes with these projects. As a representative of an industry with a wish list of state highway projects, road safety and road maintenance initiatives as long as your arm, it is deeply concerning to hear that ministerial scrutiny goes little further than to withhold signoff on hundreds of millions of dollars of spending until their own pet projects are approved.
This is the kind of politics that we would normally associate with countries that have far lower expectations of their democracy than ours. So, how did it get this bad? 
The understandable sense of panic instilled by the economic and social impacts of COVID-19 saw us become quickly enamoured with the idea of economic stimulus. The national conversation was really just around how quickly ministers could get the money out the door and into our pockets and as such, there was very little concern about the lack of scrutiny as to how the money should be distributed.
I also think that NZers have become so conditioned to discretionary spending by Shane Jones and other Government ministers through the operation of the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), that the ‘shovel-ready’ projects programme was nothing out of the ordinary. 
Interestingly, Parliament’s financial watchdog, the Auditor-General, earlier this year slammed the PGF for a lack of transparency and a focus on political ‘deliverables,’ yet this news barely created a ripple within the media – and therefore didn’t concern the public at large. 
The fact is, NZ has accepted this kind of practice as the new normal, and despite the obvious risks from having politicians so intimately involved in individual funding decisions, many of us are perfectly happy to let it continue.
NZ Taxpayers’ Union spokesperson Jordan Williams summed it up nicely in a recent public statement, saying: “The spectacle of politicians horse-trading individual funding decisions is something we expect to see in smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear, not a modern-day NZ with a reputation of being corruption-free. 
“The Provincial Growth Find, and now the COVID ‘shovel ready’ fund, are normalising a process of decisionmaking that rewards companies which are politically connected. It is a dangerous path.”
If there is one thing that we should take away from the rather lacklustre 2020 General Election campaign it is that the standards of public scrutiny in this country have changed and we need to consider just how we address that. 
Collectively we have become extremely complacent over how our Government operates and spends our money. We seem to be more worried about the inconsequential, inane, or personal lives of our politicians than we are in upholding the principles of public accountability and transparency.
I believe it is critical that we return to a situation where individual funding decisions are not made by ministers but are instead considered by neutral public officials, using objective and transparent criteria. 
Perhaps there is even the opportunity to set up a development fund somewhere within Government that could be tasked with administering this kind of discretionary spending? Cabinet could still control the scale and parameters of the funding and work with the Reserve Bank on the monetary policy to support it, but it would be left to officials to ultimately allocate the cash. 
The National Party dipped their toes into this water with their pre-election policy of a National Infrastructure Bank to look after infrastructure spending. However, true to form, the idea never really resonated with the public. Still, it is the right thing to do and, for that reason alone, I hope it is a policy that parties right across the political spectrum can one day agree to.   

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